- By Linda Creighton
A number of innovative programs are underway to get kids
excited about engineering, and they are just beginning to provide models
that might be adopted by others.
There's an old analogy that veteran educators use
when talking about how kids learn: You could teach kids to play baseball
by waiting until they're old enough to drill them repeatedly on
the separate skills of catching, fielding, batting, and strategic team
play. Instead, there is T-ball and Little League, where tiny, eager
children are sent onto a field with a mitt, bat, and ball to run wildly
around, unable to catch, hit or even run the bases in proper order.
And guess what? They love the game. And they learn it.
Children love Legos, wooden blocks, go-carts, and tree
houses. Yet very few of them grow up to be engineers. Is it time for
engineering to take a look at the baseball model for its K-12 education?
The nation's shortage of engineers is not news.
More than a million engineering jobs are up for grabs, even with the
recent economic slowdown, according to the Information Technology Association
What is news is that even a decade or so after many engineering
institutions established outreach programs for bright high school students,
it has not produced more engineers in training. Less than 15 percent
of high school graduates have enough math and science to pursue scientific/technical
degrees in college, and almost half who begin engineering courses drop
out in the first year. Less than 2 percent of U.S. high school graduates
go on to earn engineering degrees, and five years after graduation,
80 percent of those are working in some other field.
A large number of educators say improving undergraduate
education isn't enough, summer programs aren't enough, career
days aren't enough. It's time, they say, to travel further
down the educational food chain to engage K-12 engineering education
in a more aggressive and substantive way.
The question is: Where to start, and how? "These
are very large, complex systems when we talk about K-12 education,"
says Norman Fortenberry, the acting director of undergraduate education
at the National Science Foundation and a mechanical engineer by training.
"You can't charge boldly forth without doing the requisite
The campaign to bolster K-12 engineering education is
just beginning to provide models that might be adapted and adopted by
individual school districts to produce more engineers and make our society
more technology-literate. Many of the models for reform are so new that
it is too early to tell how successfully they can be applied elsewhere.
But there are several approaches that are emerging as real contenders.
Massachusetts fired the shot heard ‘round the engineering world
in 2001 when it became the first state in the nation to require engineering
instruction in every grade of its public schools. It was the first time
that a new discipline had been introduced into the state curriculum
in 100 years.
Two years later, Massachusetts remains the only state to have mandated
engineering education, with the most far-reaching and comprehensive
programs in the country.
"Everybody's watching us," says Tufts engineering
school dean Ioannis Miaoulis, the relentless and much-admired champion
of the effort.
The genius of Miaoulis' approach was to target the curriculum,
develop the standards and the methods of change, and then lobby the
state to adopt the proposals. He got together with the largest state
organization of industrial education teachers and convinced them to
transform themselves into engineering teachers to upgrade their status
and career opportunities. Brad George, a former shop teacher now tech/engineering
teacher at Hale School in Stow, Mass., says it's been a win-win
situation: "We've integrated math, science, social studies—and
made it real for these kids."
Martha Cyr, a leader in the creation of the new engineering framework,
has been director of the Tufts Center for Educational Outreach for six
years, the major supporter of the state's initiative. A member
of the university's mechanical engineering faculty, Cyr says Tufts
supports teachers with professional development and grad students in
classrooms, creates applied activities that correlate to subjects like
math or history, and establishes one-on-one contact with students to
generate feedback for what's working.
The key to success, says Cyr, is the relationship with the teachers.
"The greatest percentage of our work is in direct support of the
teachers, who can be intimidated by the prospect of teaching engineering
material." Professional development classes help, Cyr says, but
"much of it depends on the approach you use with the teacher.
It's that interpersonal communication helping them understand
how they can do this material in their classroom."
That makes choosing the right grad students critical. Eight Tufts
graduate student Fellows work with 13 classroom teachers 16 hours each
week. Mutual respect is mandatory, says Cyr. "It is incredibly
important to ensure that Fellows provide appropriate content direction
without insulting partner educators," Cyr pointed out in a study
presented to an ASEE conference.
The mandatory approach is an enormous advantage in encouraging school
districts to reach for excellence, but it also presents big challenges.
Coordinating and communicating with so many local school districts is
a major undertaking. "Now that we know what to do, how do we get
it to the thousands of teachers out there?" says Cyr. Developing
online resources, working with the State Department of Education, and
partnering with other institutions all help, she says. It takes work
Cyr's Tufts program gets space but not funding from the university,
relying instead on support from industry and 23 different grants. Without
long-term funding, long-term planning can be difficult.
And changing the sometimes negative climate in public schools can
be a battle, Cyr says. "You get one or two teachers excited and
confident, and when they go back to their school, everyone looks at
them like they've got three heads," she laments. "Sometimes
they get almost railroaded back into what they used to do."
Gauging the success of Massachusetts's experiment may get easier
when, for the first time, state assessment tests will include engineering/technology
questions for 5th grade and 8th grade. "If the districts want
to perform well on the science exam, 25 percent of it is technology/engineering
standards,'' says Cyr. "The results will be watched
closely by other school districts and states.''
As Miaoulis pointed out, the eyes of the world are upon them, for
inspiration and for lessons learned. They are the pioneers, and, like
the bravest, they do it—well, just by doing it.
While Massachusetts forged a statewide program mandated by state education
guidelines, a program based in Texas opted for an entrepreneurial approach
bankrolled by private industry that provides a turn-key package for
schools to buy. It's called the Infinity Project and has grown
in just three years from 13 schools in Texas to nearly 60 schools in
16 states stretching from Hawaii to Connecticut.
Texas, second only to California for its reliance on technology-based
jobs, has a lot of companies in the same boat as Texas Instruments,
competing for scarce engineering school grads. It was a logical step
to look to K-12 as a long-term business plan. In 2001, the CEO of Texas
Instruments identified education as its top philanthropic priority.
It took a big-thinking, high-energy whiz like Geoffrey Orsak to put
things together and come up with the Infinity Project.
"We have done the opposite thing from Massachusetts,"
says Orsak, associate dean of Southern Methodist University's
School of Engineering and director of the Infinity Project. "We
wanted to build a program that is so valuable that people will actually
want it; we're not going to have to actually force them to do
Initially backed by an $800,000 federal grant to SMU's Institute
for Engineering Education, Orsak teamed up with Torrence Robinson of
Texas Instruments, and embarked on an independent assessment of Texas's
public and private schools to determine what communities, parents and
schools wanted and were able to supply. What he found was that time-stressed
teachers and administrators wanted engineering without the hassle.
"To reach as many kids as possible, we wanted to find a way
to get in a very, very systematic way that wouldn't require a
school system or school to accept a tremendous burden,''
Orsak and TI assembled a crack team of university engineering faculty
and nationally recognized K-12 science and math teachers. Both groups
were used for content and curriculum, but Orsak knew the teaching was
best left to the professionals: the K-12 teachers.
"The teachers know what they do and they do it better than anyone
else. They know how to reach 15-year-old kids, but they don't
have knowledge of the content," Orsak explains. "The experts
know the content and how to shape it, but they don't know how
to message it for the teenager."
A kit seemed the best option. The package provides everything a school
needs—teacher preparation and development, required technology,
and a network of support for teachers and students.
Educators at the local level "want to know that someone has
thought through everything with all the details worked out,''
Orsak says. "We've established a complete solution for schools
so that all the school has to say is: ‘We want it.'"
But it's not free. "We originally thought we'd fund
the whole thing," Orsak says. "But when the school got a
program that was free, they didn't take it as seriously. The principal
and teacher paid no cost for failure. So we dropped "free"
as a model and started charging." Grants are now available where
cost is a barrier. Requiring schools to make their own investment in
the program may also help ensure rigorous assessment of its effectiveness,
a key step in making the case for including engineering in the curriculum.
Targeting high schoolers who have completed Algebra II and one science
course, the one-year program emphasizes digital signal processing, one
of the key technologies of the Internet age. The kit and its 700-page
curriculum feature multimedia hardware and software for computers and
experiments detailed in video, images and audio.
Schools must be approved to participate in the program, showing a
committed administration, willing math and science instructors, energetic
students, and laboratory supplies and space. Once a school signs on,
graduate students from SMU School of Engineering assist instructors
and mentor students.
Orsak says the bottleneck is training enough teachers who may not
have had enough science/math background. "That's tough,"
he says. "That's a national issue."
Reliance on private funding means that tough economic times for companies
is hard on the Infinity Project. If Infinity meets its goal of being
in every high school in Texas by 2005, state bureaucracies may have
to assume a larger responsibility for funding. "That will be the
model in the long run," he says.
Orsak is going national with a new program to franchise and license
the Infinity Project to universities across the country. Since most
students study within 100 miles of home, Orsak envisions a perfect framework
to build connections between schools, teachers, and local colleges of
engineering. Starting this year, 17 universities across the country
will be Infinity franchise sites. "In the same way that McDonald's
holds meetings for people interested in being franchise owners, we should
be able to admit larger numbers of schools next year," Orsak says.
And if McDonald's is the business model, the Infinity Project
might one day have a dream slogan: Billions served.
Jackie Sullivan envies Massachusetts. The dynamic founding co-director
of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program at Colorado College
of Engineering says she wishes her state had mandated K-12 engineering
courses. "I'll be working hard to achieve that," she
A proponent for greater diversity in engineering schools, Sullivan
began working in outreach programs 10 years ago. "We can't
effect change at the college level," she says. "We've
got to go much younger." How much younger? "Third grade
at the latest," Sullivan says emphatically. "Kids are born
engineers. They love hands-on learning, things that go boom, things
that are slimy. Engineering is the perfect vehicle for making science
and math relate to things in a kid's world."
Not one to shy away from outsized goals, Sullivan would like to see
a complete change in the way that engineering education is taught and
perceived. The only way to do that, she says, is to impress upon children
the role engineers and engineering play in society. She places the failure
to do so squarely at engineering educators' door. "Kids
know what doctors do. They know what lawyers do. Why don't they
know what engineers do?"
To that end, the Boulder campus of the ITL Lab, a 34,000-square-foot
facility dedicated in 1997, is really a hub for a K-16 wheel of learning,
drawing inspiration from Confucius' credo that if "I do—I
Widely admired for its innovations in undergraduate engineering learning,
ITL has expanded to offer professional development courses for teachers
of K-12. More than 8,000 K-12 students visit the lab each year to take
part in classes like the electrical engineering "Shock Your Socks
Off" geared to excite minds young and old.
Two years after its beginning, a NSF grant enabled the program to
put engineering grad students into 60 K-12 classrooms throughout the
year. This year, ITL will partner with 60 teachers from 7 schools in
the area. In 1998, the Success Institute was added to the initiative,
a four-year residential camp program for middle schoolers, aimed at
increasing engineering enrollment of students of color.
The only way to get at the problem, Sullivan believes, is to start
with the early building blocks, a point that was driven home when she
taught a Success Institute's class of high-achiever 9th graders.
When they could not average five numbers, she wondered "My Goodness,
how far down do we have to go?"
Weakness in math and science for students can often be traced back
to a wobbly foundation in those areas for teachers, she says. "We
find elementary teachers love this classroom augmentation because they
don't consider themselves strong in math and science."
But the demands on teachers can derail the best efforts to push ahead
in K-12, Sullivan says, and enthusiasm for additional commitments can
wane. Next year the ITL program will cut summer teacher workshops to
two days from the current five. Better pay and more respect for teachers
is a critical K-12 component that Sullivan would like to see addressed.
Sullivan concedes that assessing the progress of programs like Colorado's
can be problematic. When a DOE grant enabled them to develop a 3rd through
5th grade engineering curricula at three schools, ITL wanted to use
control vs. test classrooms and perform content testing after a year.
That turned out to be a hard sell. Resistance to the idea of "control"
groups of students—and reluctance to take on more testing—resulted
in one of the partner schools canceling their involvement in the program
The amount of red tape any program must contend with in its dealings
with public schools is daunting, slowing down the changes Sullivan would
like to see yesterday. What she is doing about it is constantly creating
new alliances and approaches to meld the best of what is out there with
what could be. To that end, she contacted Tufts and several other institutions,
and together, they are developing a Web-based searchable digital library
of K-12 curriculum. It is called TeachEngineering.com, and in September
was awarded a grant by the NSF. Searching by curriculum standards or
specific science/math skills and grade level, Sullivan envisions an
invaluable tool for K-12 educators.
With every innovation or venture into new territory, Sullivan adds
a reality check. "Three years from now, we're going to have
the first high school graduates of our week long immersion program in
the summer. It's wonderful if they have a better attitude about
engineering. But who cares? Are they enrolling in engineering? That's
It's a long-term investment, with at least 10 years before results
are known, says Sullivan. "You can't go in and effect great
change in a short time." And what if her initiatives fail to enroll
every student in engineering? "Have we failed?" she asks.
" No, not if you look at the education of a technologically literate
society as part of the mission of engineering colleges, which I think
Common lessons are emerging from these and many other efforts aimed
at K-12 engineering education.
Seasoned educators agree that any K-12 initiative must be built for
the long haul upon the cooperation of parents, students, teachers, administrators,
industry, and elected officials. "We have to come together as
equals and as partners," says Fortenberry, of the NSF. "The
principal danger is that we will have very excited, enthusiastic, but
ill-informed people attempting to go into K-12 schools with the ‘solution.'
This is not a situation where higher ed can fix K-12. If it's
going to have any hope of success, it's got to be a collaborative
Fortenberry says there is no one-size-fits-all solution. "We
do not have a national system of K-12 in this country," he points
out. "The long tradition of local control and local options means
we need programs tailored to individual districts of states."
Gerhard Salinger, a program director in the division of elementary,
secondary and informal education at the National Science Foundation,
says very few of the programs that come to him for review reflect an
understanding of how students learn engineering. "I think a number
of them are essentially taking what they do in college and doing outreach
without a framework for doing it," he says. Hands-on K-12 activities
"stuffed into science or math standards" do nothing to teach
engineering concepts and process, he says. He singles out for praise
programs such as one at Illinois State under the direction of Franz
Loepp or Janet Coladner's Georgia Tech program that pays attention
to the way children learn and focus on constructing an entire culture
of design and engineering principles.
For now, perhaps, the biggest lesson about K-12 engineering education
may be that the path is uncertain.
Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington,
She can be reached at email@example.com.